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Across engineering departments, undergraduate summer researchers push boundaries

From developing an alternative test for colorectal cancer to researching ways to reduce greenhouse gases, many undergraduate students spend their summers contributing to professors’ research projects at the School of Engineering.

The School of Engineering hosts several programs across its departments to offer research opportunities to undergraduate students during the summer. Each student participating in these programs works on a professor’s research project under a graduate student mentor.

“It’s amazing to see [students] progress from knowing nothing about research to not being experts but [still] knowing what it means to do research, [to see them] collect data, analyze data, report data, become confident in learning from the literature [and] studying papers,” said Matteo Cargnello, an assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department.

Cargnello’s lab is researching catalysts that can help reduce harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Every student and graduate mentor have a specific project that involves the synthesis, characterization and testing of materials.

“Three out of the five days we’re inside the lab mixing and synthesizing, massing different samples and looking at the proficiency and the reactivity of our samples, and then the other two days we’re either discussing or reading literature,” said Marion Cagnard ’21, who has worked on Cargnello’s team this summer.

The students in Cargenello’s lab have weekly meetings with him, their undergraduate peers and high school students that work in the lab, as well as daily meetings with their mentors.

Last summer, Cargnello also started the U Team, or Undergrad Team, which allows students to collaborate with each other and work directly with their mentors. One goal the team has is to increase diversity in engineering. Some of the students travel back to their high schools to encourage students of minority backgrounds to pursue STEM fields and to apply to Stanford.

In the Material Science & Engineering Department, some students are working on material science professor Shan Wang’s research to develop a blood test that detects certain markers that indicate colorectal cancer.

Peter Boenninghausen ’21 and his graduate mentor are working in Wang’s lab to improve the sensitivity and efficiency of a test that scans for rectal cancer, intended as a substitute for colonoscopies.

“I watch my mentor do something, I take notes, [and] I do reading from other papers about results,” said Boennighausen. “So far I’ve been doing PCR, Polymerase Chain Reaction.”

The engineering research program, which pays students a stipend for 40 hours of work each week for 10 weeks, began on June 25.

Undergraduate students applied to the program through their department of choice and were then paired with professors. While not all professors are participating in the program, there are research projects within each department that students are working on.

Other students are participating in engineering research on campus this summer through alternate programs including the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and the Raising Interest in Science and Engineering (RISE) Internship. SURF encourages diversity in research by providing research opportunities for select undergraduates, and the RISE program allows high school students to work on research under a graduate mentor in addition to weekly community enrichment activities for participants.

For Boennighausen, undergraduate research is an avenue for him to see if research is something he wants to continue doing in the future. Cagnard said that the program also opened her eyes to postgraduate research opportunities.

“I always thought I would be tired of school after undergrad, but now talking to the Ph.D. candidates, they are really happy doing what they do,” Cagnard said. “It has made me consider grad school over industry … All this research is just really dynamic and cool.”

 

Contact Stephanie Dutra at stephaniiedutra ‘at’ gmail.com.

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